Moving to the new Linux-based IP network over the past year was a major transformation for the Syracuse, N.Y.-based Raymour & Flanigan, which has nearly 50 stores in the Northeast. The IP-and-frame relay WAN replaced the company's old leased lines, and Linux runs the firewall, database, DNS/DHCP and POP mail servers for the new IP infrastructure.
Brian Dewey, the network engineer for Raymour & Flanigan who spearheaded the Linux decision, considers Linux a liberating alternative to Microsoft Windows and Novell NetWare. "We don't have to worry about licensing or pay an upgrade fee for the next version," he says.
When Dewey first joined the company a year ago, he and his team were able to recycle some of Raymour & Flanigan's older server and PC hardware to get the firewall and DNS/DHCP servers up and running quickly on the company's Red Hat Linux. "We used old PCs and retired servers to get these services installed and running, and to help management understand their usefulness," Dewey says. It was easier to put Linux, rather than another operating system, on the older 486-based machines, because you can custom-compile the kernel without a CPU-intensive graphical user interface, he says. Raymour & Flanigan now is upgrading those processors to Pentium-class machines, Dewey says.
Linux may be a refreshing change from traditional licensed operating systems, but it has trade-offs. Equipping a Linux system with freebie open tools, which are widely available, requires some manual configuration and, often, learning on the fly. For instance, take NetSaint, the open-source systems-management tool Raymour & Flanigan runs in lieu of pricier packages from Tivoli or Cisco. Dewey first downloaded and compiled the NetSaint source code, and then had to set up the configuration files using some online documentation. "I compiled [the code] on an Apple Computer Mac G3 running Linux, and I can see whether the Linux devices and routers are up or down," Dewey says. The tool isn't as powerful as the commercial management platforms, he says, but it does the basic monitoring and reporting that Raymour & Flanigan needs.
Dewey prefers to use text-based configuration files to set up his Linux servers, though Red Hat does have GUI tools. But interestingly, Raymour & Flanigan has no plans to exploit the custom-coding features of its Linux platform, one of the big draws for Linux aside from its low cost of ownership. "I really don't mess around with the source code," Dewey says. "It's more about choice and flexibility."
E-commerce was the driving force for Raymour & Flanigan to rebuild its network and much of its systems infrastructure. The company wanted to get Internet access to its retail stores, so both customers and salespeople could use its Web site on the showroom floor as an online catalog and sales support tool. "We wanted to have an IP network in our stores for e-commerce," Dewey says. Web e-mail was also a priority for the company, which previously had mainly internal messaging in its General Electric Co. retail system. All of Raymour & Flanigan's stores, which span New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, as well as its service centers, have fractional T1 connections to the IP-and-frame relay WAN. These links replaced the old, serial-based 56-Kbps leased lines.
The overall network upgrade, including a $6,000 support contract with Red Hat, cost Raymour & Flanigan a little more than $1 million.
The thin-client appliances -- Neoware Systems Eon 4000s -- sit on the showroom floors as well as at the company's service centers and headquarters. Raymour & Flanigan is still in the process of replacing its old green-screen terminals with the Eon 4000s, which run Red Hat Linux and Netscape Communicator as their browser. The catch with desktop appliances is that they aren't the fastest or highest capacity desktop machines. The Eon 4000s at Raymour & Flanigan can store up to 32 MB, and they run terminal emulation to the company's Unix-based GE retail application and Citrix for accessing its Microsoft Access database applications, which soon will be replaced with Oracle-based applications for tasks like inventory.
Next for Raymour & Flanigan is converting the Windows 98 PCs in its service centers to Linux. "The [Linux] desktop still needs some work in the applications it supports," Dewey says. "But our service centers have very few applications to run, so Linux is a better fit."
IT Department Info
- Size of IT Staff: 14
- Dewey's Average Workweek: 45 to 50 hours (not including the 6 to 10 hours he spends working at home)
- Biggest Challenge: "Performing a wide variety of tasks and having to back up people when they are out of the office. Sometimes it's tough working in a small shop."
- Latest Projects: "Upgrading most of our Linux servers to new Dell rackmounted hardware; completely reorganizing our corporate-center computer room; upgrading our Internet connection using a second source provider; and providing load-balancing via a Cisco PIX firewall. Also, adding Web-based e-mail for the stores."
- Coolest Part of the Job: "Working with Linux and open-source software."